Zeitgeist & Sound

Really loved this newsletter entry (post? Edition? What are we calling these things in this Newsletter Golden Age?) from Damon Krukowski. He’s a musician, critic, deep listener/thinker, and he tackles the thirtieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind from the perspective of a working musician who was on the road at the same time as Nirvana in the fall of 1991. Two things were happening simultaneously in Krukowski’s life at the time: Nirvana and alternative rock were climbing to the top of the pop charts; and jazz, classical, and world” music were entering his life (and public consciousness) on a bigger scale. He explains how CD technology—with its uninterrupted, generous running time—and globalization worked together to put less-popular genres into stores alongside all those Nevermind copies. So for Krukowski, the sound” of 1991 is Nirvana and Qawwali, Mozart, and improvisatory music.

I’m fascinated by these limits to defining the zeitgeist. Yes, Nirvana was immensely popular (or well on its way to becoming popular) in the fall of 1991, but other strands of music were just as alive. They’re hidden from view now for two reasons. The first I’ll call the hindsight reason: Nirvana undoubtedly influenced a whole generation of music and we can still feel the ripples, so we keep repeating the Nirvana Was Important tale to explain its colossal impact, to explain where we are today. It’s simple, it’s tidy, it helps us feel a shared history, even if you weren’t/aren’t a Nirvana fan.

The second reason is related to this simplification, and I’ll call it the blindsight reason: it’s hard—though Krukowski tries—to trace the impact all of this newfound access to jazz, classical, and world music had on the public. To the best of my knowledge, not too many Qawwali-influenced bands rose up in early 90s America. Teenage music fans didn’t start dressing in wigs and tights in homage to Mozart. We don’t explicitly see the impact, so we write it off as an untidy anomaly, a footnote to Nirvana’s royal reign. If Nirvana was an asteroid smashing into the Pacific Ocean, this newfound access to jazz, classical, and world music made a pebble-sized splash. You could see it in the early 90s, but you can only feel it now if you actually experienced it.

Yet jazz, classical, and world music were just different strands of a larger 1991 musical tapestry. I’m interested in these personalized, weirder pockets of music history because they can make an era feel much more lived and alive than just rehashing the same Nirvana Was King history. Life, in any era, is much weirder and more surprising than we can possibly imagine from our vantage point.

And it gets weirder the further you zoom in. There’s the culture you live in, then there’s your culture, the hyperspecific way you curate or are curated by different forces. You’re constantly discovering artists/genres outside of their particular zeitgeist, playing catch-up with a vast wealth of music history, and this can coincide with the dominant sound” you live through. In 2008-2009, I discovered and got obsessed with 70s krautrock, so for me that sound reminds me of that era, just as much as Beyonce, Kanye, and Daft Punk do. This is why I don’t lament the supposed end of the monoculture. I think it was an artificial myth to begin with. Plus, monocultures—like monoculture farming—are probably inherently unhealthy. Give me the wilder forests of personal zeitgeist.

Krukowski also includes a 1991 documentary about improvised music in his remembrance. In the beginning of the video clip, jazz musician Douglas R. Ewart teaches a Chicago grade school class about improvisation. The lesson starts off chaotic: Ewart blows into a didgeridoo, the kids bang randomly on peanut tins and desks with drum sticks, there are a lot of confused and bored faces. Then the music starts to congeal into a rhythmic pulse. Ewart starts shouting nonsense phrases, the students respond, the pulse quickens and slows, the music moves with a life of its own. Everyone is having fun.

Ewart, in voice over: Usually I say nothing to them. I come in and I begin playing and then they begin playing, and we experiment from there…in most subjects in school, students individually synthesize the lesson. Here, they have to work together…it doesn’t matter if they’re the A student or the D student to me.”

Compare this with your own experience of early musical education: if you went to an American public school like me, you were immediately taught what was a wrong note. You were taught compliance and competition. You were taught there is a hierarchy, between first chair and last chair, between noise” and music.

Doesn’t music education need to start from Ewart’s position? We should teach sound first as an infinite possibility—the basic building block of music—before we teach the correct notes to play. Sound and music start with the body: how we perceive, how we listen, how we play, how we interact.

Teach noisemaking because it’s fun. Teach past the boundaries of instruments. Teach the unique personal expression of everyone, and the way those expressions can combine into something bigger. Sound is a marvelous, miraculous thing, and we shouldn’t be afraid of using all of it.

November 16, 2021